Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Protestant Defense of Mary's Perpetual Virginity; or Evangelical Mariology as a peculiar historical aberration

The Annunciation
The Catholic Church teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was not only a virgin before Jesus was born, but remained a virgin perpetually thereafter.

Most evangelicals find this to be just another silly Catholic belief that can be quickly dismissed by anyone with a basic knowledge of the Scriptures, seeing as the Bible mentions that Jesus had brothers and sisters.

One such example is Matthew 12.46: "While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him." Other examples include Matthew 13.55, Mark 6.3 (this is the one that mentions sisters), John 2.12, John 7.3, John 7.5, John 7.10, Acts 1.14, 1 Corinthians 9.5, and Galatians 1.19.

Here's a traditional response:
"The word brothers, we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relatives whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned."
There is another passage usually brought up as a evidence that Mary was not perpetually a virgin, Matthew 1.24-25: "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus."

To say that Joseph "knew her not until she had given birth to a son", many evangelicals argue, seems to imply very strongly that Joseph did "know" Mary after she had given birth to Jesus. Another traditional response:
"This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. 
He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers."
St Jerome
Who's this Helvidius that keeps getting mentioned? He was a 4th century theologian who taught that Mary was not a virgin after the birth Jesus and based this belief on the very same verses that we have brought up. Helvidius' view was immediately condemned in the Church as newly-invented blasphemy, with a famous defense of Mary's perpetual virginity given by St Jerome in his work The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary: "Pray tell me, who, before you appeared, was acquainted with this blasphemy? Who thought the theory worth two-pence?" (18)

The explanations quoted above in defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary, while accurate, are fairly poignant (and at times even a bit harsh). So who are they from?

None other than the great Protestant Reformer John Calvin.

The first quote is from from his Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Vol 2, Matthew 13.53-58 and Mark 6.1-6, and the second is from his Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Vol 1, Matthew 1.18-25.

For full disclosure, Calvin seems to indicate in a sentence following the second quote that, while he doesn't think there is Scriptural warrant for denying the perpetual virginity of Mary, he doesn't think the question is of much importance either:
"Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation."
But notice that Calvin thought that "Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned," (my emphasis) - the very same conclusion that many evangelicals today make from those passages.

And regarding the other common evangelical argument from Matthew 1.24-25, Calvin thought "that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ" and that "[w]hat took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers."

Calvin was not alone among the Reformers in defending the perpetual virginity of our Blessed Mother.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther wrote:
"When Matthew says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her . . . This babble . . . is without justification . . . he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom." (That Jesus was Born a Jew)
"Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that. [...] Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . I am inclined to agree with those who declare that 'brothers' really mean 'cousins' here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers." (Sermons on John)
Huldrych Zwingli wrote:
"I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin." (Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Berlin, 1905, v. 1, p. 424)
Even John Wesley, in 1749, wrote:
"I believe that He [Jesus] was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin." (Letter to a Roman Catholic)
Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Wesley were simply maintaining the long-standing traditional belief on the matter. Here are just a few witnesses:

St Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Generation of Christ, 5 (4th century):
"For if Joseph had taken her to be his wife, for the purpose of having children, why would she have wondered at the announcement of maternity, since she herself would have accepted becoming a mother according to the law of nature?"
St Augustine, Sermons 186.1 (early 5th century):
“It was not the visible sun, but its invisible Creator who consecrated this day for us, when the Virgin Mother, fertile of womb and integral in her virginity, brought him forth, made visible for us, by whom, when he was invisible, she too was created. A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?”
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.28.3 (13th century):
"Without any hesitation we must abhor the error of Helvidius, who dared to assert that Christ's Mother, after His Birth, was carnally known by Joseph, and bore other children. 
For, in the first place, this is derogatory to Christ's perfection: for as He is in His Godhead the Only-Begotten of the Father, being thus His Son in every respect perfect, so it was becoming that He should be the Only-begotten son of His Mother, as being her perfect offspring. 
St Thomas Aquinas
Secondly, this error is an insult to the Holy Ghost, whose "shrine" was the virginal womb, wherein He had formed the flesh of Christ: wherefore it was unbecoming that it should be desecrated by intercourse with man. 
Thirdly, this is derogatory to the dignity and holiness of God's Mother: for thus she would seem to be most ungrateful, were she not content with such a Son; and were she, of her own accord, by carnal intercourse to forfeit that virginity which had been miraculously preserved in her. 
Fourthly, it would be tantamount to an imputation of extreme presumption in Joseph, to assume that he attempted to violate her whom by the angel's revelation he knew to have conceived by the Holy Ghost. 
We must therefore simply assert that the Mother of God, as she was a virgin in conceiving Him and a virgin in giving Him birth, did she remain a virgin ever afterwards."
Of course, most Christians today still believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary (think Catholics and Orthodox). The practice of evangelicals today of denying the perpetual virginity of Mary is a fairly recent innovation - a peculiar historical aberration, particularly since evangelicals would consider themselves to be conservative Christians - that can't even find historical precedent among the primary magisterial Reformers; for that, one can only look to a hand-full of 4th century teachers who were otherwise universally rejected as heretics. Catholics, on the other hand, have maintained the 2000 year tradition that our blessed and holy mother Mary was indeed not only a virgin before Jesus' birth but also perpetually a virgin thereafter.


  1. Awesome. Like I told my friend yesterday when she was celebrating Reformation Day; Luther and Calvin would not dare enter most of the churches around today.

  2. Anon,
    They'd probably start new ones again

  3. "Luther and Calvin would not dare enter most of the churches around today."

    If Luther or Calvin were alive today they'd be rolling over in their graves.

  4. "If Luther or Calvin were alive today they'd be rolling over in their graves."

    Why would they be in their graves if they were alive?

  5. Re rolling over: that was my point of course. Y'all pass the test. Congratulations.

    Speaking of the the Biblical use of the English word "until," I get my 6th graders to make sense of this line:

    "Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool."

    They always laugh when I play God and say "OK, I've made your enemies your footstool. You can't sit at my right hand anymore."

    1. or... "Don't need to sit at my right hand anymore, the enemies are vanquished." Viz., "Don't need to be a vrigin anymore; the Holy One has been born of your virgin womb."

  6. To say that Mary did not have other children after Jesus is not supported by Scripture nor the way the Jewish people thought in the 1st century. Consider:
    1) No mention of it in the Scripture. She nor do any writers claim she was a perpetual virgin.
    2) The passage in Luke 1:48 in which Mary says she is a virgin does not mean she took a vow of perpetual virginity. It is only that she is a virgin up to this point in time.
    3) The idea that a person who is about to be married is taking or has taken a vow of perpetual virginity is unheard of Biblically. There is no indication from the OT or NT that it would be acceptable to be married and yet chose to be a perpetual virgin. Married Jewish couples were to be fruitful and multiply. This is OT teaching.
    4) When brothers and sisters are used in connection with father or mother then it does not mean cousins but actual blood brothers and sisters. See Matthew 13:55-56, Mark 3:31-32; Mark 6:3; John 2:12; Galatians 1:19
    5) In the previous passages noted the best way to understand these relationships “brothers-sisters” is that these are siblings of Jesus by blood.
    6) There is no hint in Scripture that Joseph was previously married and had children.
    7) Paul refers to James as the “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19.
    8) There are Greek words for cousin—anepsios as in Colossians 4:10 or kinsman = sungenis which is used in Luke 1:36

    1. In response to 3 above. I recently read this blog:

      Not conclusive but does give one pause

  7. Brantley, thanks for this article! I'm a born/bred evangelical myself, and have been examining Catholic/Orthodox (predominantly Orthodox in full disclosure) theology for some time. I've learned a ton. This issue of Mary's perpetual virginity has been the latest "tripping" point for me. On the one hand, I was very impressed by the Reformers' perspective on Mary as quoted above, and I was equally amused to learn yet another thing my educators throughout life have probably hoped I'd never find out about our Protestant "fathers."

    That being said, I wonder if you'd agree there are two considerations on this topic. The first, historical consensus, you covered impressively above. The second, I would think, should be historical viability. Apart from bringing the perpetual virginity view *into* a reading of the Biblical text, the Biblical case alone for it is at least inconclusive. Mary's perpetual virginity (or lack thereof), to me, is not a critical theological issue. I can appreciate the sensibility of wanting to preserve *her* purity, but I think the so-called negative implications for Christology of a Mary who "knew" her husband after Christ's birth are uncompelling (just my opinion).

    The bug seems to rest in the historical credibility of the Protoevangelium of James, if I understand it correctly, and from what I can find, there seems to be much scholarly skepticism about a) its authorship and b) its authoritativeness on the events it recounts since the letter and its contents are not known to have been seen until more than a century after Christ's death.

    What is your take on the "historicity" question of Mary's perpetual virginity (apart from historical consensus), and the subsequent issue of the PoJ?

    1. Hey Josh, I'm honored you took the time read anything I've written here. Blessings on your pursuit of Christ.

      You're right, of course, that the historical consensus is somewhat distinct from the question of whether Mary was in fact perpetually a virgin. I'd also agree that the biblical evidence isn't decisive. The Bible certainly does not rule out Mary's perpetual virginity, and it may even imply it (see St Gregory of Nyssa's quote), but it's not explicitly clear about Mary's perpetual virginity either.

      The much stronger case comes from the oral Tradition, and in the early Church, the oral Tradition was clear that Mary was perpetually a virgin (ante partum, in partu, and post partum). Meaning, the information was passed down from the Apostle's in the Church, though it wasn't explicitly recorded in Scripture (remember, the deposit of faith is passed down in two ways, both written Scripture and oral Tradition; cf. 2 Thess 2.15). I wouldn't rest the whole early oral Tradition on the Protoevangelium of James, although that is a very early text that we have available to us today that reflects the early Church belief in Mary's perpetual virginity. Remember, the oral Tradition is not just the texts that we have today, it's whatever was passed down orally from the Apostles. The texts of the early Church are helpful for us establishing that something was held by the Church at that time. The Church Fathers aren't infallible, but they are reflect the infallible oral Tradition that was passed down from the Apostles.

      I'd also give weight simply to the fact that so many Christians for most of Christian history believed it. The Church has the Holy Spirit and doesn't leave the Church to error. The Catholic Church has long believed both in the sensus fidelium and the ordinary and universal magisterium. The sensus fidelium means that if the whole Church believes something, the faithful and the clergy, it has to be true because the Holy Spirit wouldn't allow the whole Church to fall into error. The ordinary and universal magisterium is when the magisterium is regularly teaching a doctrine to the whole Church over a long period of time. Both have been true of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

      But is the doctrine important. I've thought about this as well. What is the God and His Church trying to teach us with this dogma? Perhaps if we don't find it necessary or strange, we have something to learn about the meaning and value of virginity.

      Anyway, these are just my quick thoughts. Feel free to respond or not. God bless!

    2. Hey Josh, I don't know what else you've looked at on my blog. If you were interested, I'd be interested in your thoughts on my post "How Quickly Catholic Heresy Took Over the Church (Immediately) [Updated]", found here:


      You can interact with me, if you're interested, in the comments or by email (bcmillegan@gmail.com) or on Facebook.

      God bless,

  8. A helpful reminder about oral tradition, Brantly (sorry for misspelling your name previously). That's one concept I've ever-so-slowly come around on and tend to forget about its role in the beliefs of the Church. I gave that article you linked to a skim-over, so if I'm missing a crucial point it made, let me know and I'll give it a closer read. But essentially you seem to be making the point that much of pre-reformational Christian belief has deep roots in Church history and can't be so blithely dismissed by protestants as corruption born out of stagnation. Do I have that right? If that's your meaning, I'm actually well past the Evangelicals you write about there. None of those beliefs you listed in the beginning are problematic to me at this point. Being that I incline more to Orthodoxy than to Catholicism, the idea of the bishop of Rome's supremacy having been "established" might need to be fleshed out a bit more, but definitely resonate with your overarching point. I'm actually in my 2nd year of a masters program at Dallas Theological Seminary right now (don't tell anyone), and I recently completed a "History of Doctrine" course that actually confirmed a lot of your points (though I'd already sort of figured most of that out).

    Anyway, if you're trying to get a better feel for where I am in my "questioning," it might be helpful to put it this way: what's standing between me and my family's conversion away from protestantism is almost solely family/logistics related rather than theological at this point.

    1. Hey Josh, I got your email, and we can continue our discussion via email.

    2. @Josh . . . There is no resolution to the primacy of Peter establishing a single Roman bishop as opposed to establishing bishops everywhere. On that score, Orthodoxy wins based on the historical record.

      @Brantly . . . It seems wrong that the RCC would make it dogma and thus heresy not to affirm the perpetual virginity and the immaculate conception—leaving aside matters regarding the guilt of the individual involved. On that score, RCC loses because it contradictsmessage of salvation.

  9. Hmmm,

    A response to Aquinas' defense:

    The idea that for Mary to have sex after Jesus was born is derogatory does not move me to believe that it is then more probable that she didn't have sex after Jesus.

    Aquinas' defense sounds like an appeal to emotion.

  10. Seems like the church still is messed up on sex..So Aquinas thought "intercourse is a desecration" and there is more"dignity in virginity". The soup that laid the myth.

    1. Hey Anon, Thanks for checking out the blog. Thomas didn't say what you quoted - "intercourse is a desecration" - he said that he thought Mary's womb would be desecrated by intercourse with Joseph. I think the idea is that God had been there first, it would be wrong for Joseph to then enter Mary. Intercourse itself is obviously not a bad thing.

      God bless!

    2. Brantly, not to have intercourse would be a desecration of marriage....the two shall become one. The act of sex is that attempt at returning to oneness. Mary's womb simply could not be desecrated by an act that it was designed to do.

    3. Hey GTD,

      I'm not sure where you're getting the idea that a lack of sex is a "desecration of marriage" - an idea totally foreign to the Christian tradition.

      You're right that sex by itself is obviously not a desecration, but I think Mary's situation is different since God had resided in her womb.

      God bless!

    4. @Brantly--why then be married if there is a lack of sex? Isn't that totally foreign to the Christian understanding of marriage? And what of Genesis' commandment--"Be fruitful and multiply."?

      I don't discount the notion that oral tradition could propagate the notion that Mary was "ever Virgin".....however, it doesn't mean that the oral tradition is necessarily correct, especially where it becomes dogma requiring one to believe it in order to become RC. To wit, if one believes that Jesus was the son of God, why is it necessary to believe in the doctrines surrounding Mary? The only response can be, "Because the Church said so." One is entitled to no private judgment.

      This is why I cannot be Catholic and it leads to rejecting other things like papal infallibility. After all, I think you would agree that the message of Christ is itself infallible. If infallible, why is the doctrine of Mary or papal infallibility required?

  11. I have only just read your article today. I am a Roman Catholic convert from the reformed tradition. Still, I cannot shake the fact that I think Calvin is wrong on this point and that he was working from a distorted view of sexuality. There is no stain or deficiency in sexuality, and it would have contributed to Mary's Holiness to have been united with her husband.... it is a perversion of the sacredness of human sexuality to view virginity as somehow more holy than sexual union. Also, the doctrine puts into question whether Joseph could even be called her husband. To fail ever to consummate the marriage with physical union puts that into question as well.

    1. continuing from above... I think the strongest argument is from the situation at the cross when Jesus tells John and Mary that they are now mother and son. Her beginning to live with john from that day implies that there are no other naturally born sons or daughters to care for her. The rest of the scriptural witness is rather unconvincing. The problem with the word "until" still holds even for the "sit at my right hand until...." the implication is that a change will take place (no more sitting? active ruling?, ect.). In any case, I have to keep my frustrations about this doctrine to myself since it is "official".

    2. Anon--you pinpoint one obstacle to me becoming RC. That is, the notion of you giving up your private judgment for official dogma. It almost sounds Mormonistic....as a Jewish convert to Christianity told me, If he did not believe in private judgment, he would still be an orthodox Jew!

      Reading that text where Jesus says to Mary, "Behold thy son." doesn't require that implication that there were no others. To boot, we should think that Mary's new son would have written more about his new mother.